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Pitching technologies for better healthcare: Innovation program forges entrepreneurs with a difference

What could clinicians, engineers and business experts have in common? A top-notch collaboration, if they team up to develop products that fill unmet clinical needs. This was evident from the final presentations of six interuniversity teams from the Surgical Innovation Program led by McGill University on April 18.

And as one judge noted, the students seem to be getting better at it each year.

“This was far and away the best of the three cohorts we’ve seen since the Surgical Innovation Program began. Several teams pitched very compelling business cases today,” said Steven Arless, a professor of practice in the Faculty of Medicine at McGill University, chairman of the board and co-founder of SoundBite Medical, and entrepreneur-in-residence at the Centre de l'entrepreneurship technologique (Centech).

Dr. Mohamed Nazhat Al Yafi and Noémie Joannette-Lafrance, two trainees from the Injury Repair Recovery (IRR) Program at the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre (RI-MUHC), are on the team that placed first at the event. Both are working on an M.Sc. in experimental surgery: innovation at McGill University.

With the engineering talents of teammates Clarisse Bascans and Aude Castonguay-Henri from École de technologie supérieure (ETS) and their project mentor, Dr. Mirko Gilardino, a plastic surgeon at the MUHC and researcher in the IRR Program, the team developed a product concept called FlapStat. This non-invasive probe assesses blood perfusion of flaps during breast reconstructions, reducing necrosis and other complications.

“We’ll be excited to see what develops with this product in the future,” said Noémie Joannette-Lafrance. In the meantime, the team members look forward to an industry internship in their final summer semester.

Of course, it’s a long road to market, even for the best product concepts. “The skills and collaborations forged in this program are a great starting point,” said Dr. Costas Karatzas, director of the Business Development and Contracts Office at the RI-MUHC. “All presentations today were excellent in addressing a clinical need. The teams nicely covered all ‘gates’ that a start-up needs to go through, from prototype development to fundraising to marketing. These students will be graduates of the first training model of this type in Canada, an approach that has been highly successful in several U.S. settings, such as Stanford University.”

The program is part of a six-year graduate training initiative that received major funding from NSERC in 2016 to stimulate cross-disciplinary formation in this high-skills sector. Dr. Jake Barralet, associate leader of the IRR Program and vice chair (research) in the Department of Surgery at McGill’s Faculty of Medicine, is lead investigator of the Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) grant called “Innovation at the Cutting Edge.” This year’s cohort formed cardiac, plastic surgery, orthopedics, obstetrics-gynecology, general surgery and rehabilitation teams.

According to Steven Arless, the initiative is on track for great success. “As the educational process for teambuilding, entrepreneurial business case development and MedTech start-up success factors continues to be refined,” he said, “McGill’s Surgical Innovation Program is edging closer to the growing student and professor interest and demand for MedTech technology acceleration in Montreal, and across Canada. Congratulations to Dr. Jake Barralet, Dr. Kevin Lachapelle and the entire team.”

The Surgical Innovation Program is delivered jointly by McGill University, ETS and Concordia University, with multiple industrial partners.

— May 10, 2018